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Here’s how vehicle manufacturing can make a comeback in the country

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Don’t Drink And Write

PUV
The Isuzu “jeepney” -- VERNON B. SARNE

When Ford Philippines announced in 2012 its decision to stop assembling vehicles in the country, you just knew it was game over for our automotive manufacturing industry. Sure, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Isuzu are still making a few models here, but their production is only for local consumption, so the volumes involved will never be huge. Ford used to export locally assembled vehicles to other ASEAN markets, but even those were small in numbers.

And sure, there’s the Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy program that supposedly aims to reposition the Philippines as a “regional automotive manufacturing hub.” But the incentives provided by said program only favor those who can commit to large production runs, like Toyota and Mitsubishi (and Hyundai, assuming it’s not misdeclaring completely built units as completely knocked-down ones, but that’s another story). If we’re all being honest, the prospect of vehicle manufacturing in our territory remains gloomy. We simply can’t compete with our neighboring Asian countries when it comes to government incentives, labor costs, electricity pricing and ease of doing business.

But vehicle manufacturing may be making a comeback, and it’s not necessarily by way of private passenger cars. I’m talking about modern public-utility vehicles, which are expected to replace the anachronistic jeepney. President Rodrigo R. Duterte wants to rid our roads of those lumbering and smoke-spewing jalopies, and his transport officials are moving heaven and earth to make it happen.

On Monday, I witnessed Isuzu Philippines Corp. formally turn over the first batch of its new and roadworthy PUVs to the Senate Employees Transport Service Cooperative, which will operate these vehicles from the soon-to-open Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange to the Manila Bay area (and vice versa). The new jeepneys — or whatever they’ll be called next — are powered by Isuzu’s 3.0-liter 4JH1-TC turbo diesel engine, with 20-seater bodies made by local coachbuilder Almazora. Advocates of electric propulsion might be disappointed, but at least Euro4-compliant oil-burners are infinitely better than the surplus ones shoehorned into the dilapidated jeepneys that ply our daily routes.

Each unit costs P1.945 million (more if you include taxes), a price that will no doubt scare the bejesus out of PUV operators. But manufacturers are currently working with the Bureau of Investment to see if some subsidy may be extended to the cash-strapped transport service providers. Plus, manufacturers like Isuzu are thinking of ways to help operators earn more money. The company’s PUV, for instance, comes with a prominent display monitor in the passenger cabin that can show paid advertisements.

The new PUVs are spacious. So roomy you can stand and walk upright inside. There is also ample air-conditioning so passengers can reach their destination a little fresher than usual. There are at least three video cameras to document everything that’s happening in and around the vehicle. Good luck to all the dirty old men who like bringing their hands to areas they have no business touching, let alone groping. And the vehicles have a fire extinguisher and a glass breaker, signifying that their builder had passenger welfare in mind from conceptualization to production.

Best of all, there is provision for contactless payment. Passengers may pay using Beep cards. That’s a lot more convenient than having to pass along a crumpled, smelly bill to the driver in front all the way from the last guy at the back.

Based on Isuzu’s estimate, some quarter of a million jeepneys need to be replaced nationwide. That’s quite a number of vehicles that will create more jobs in the years to come. Understandably, there’s also excitement even among the suppliers of parts and components needed to put together these modern PUVs. When I published my story on my motoring website, a local distributor of speed limiters sent me a message proudly informing me that his products had been installed on Isuzu’s PUVs. Seems to me there’s so much business that will be generated if this PUV modernization program is sustained.

And it looks like it will be. At the Isuzu PUV handover ceremony, three senators inserted themselves in the proceedings, indicating the program’s big potential for vote-padding publicity. You can bet these politicians will continue to latch on to this thing for as long as they need to stay in power.

PUVs aren’t sexy, no. We want SUVs and hatchbacks and sedans and pickups. But local market forces just aren’t very friendly to passenger car manufacturers right now. Let’s build these new jeepneys first. Maybe we’ll progress to something sexier along the way.